Tenerife, a tiny Spanish island off the coast of Africa, is home to the second largest carnival celebration after Rio de Janeiro. A quarter of a million party-goers converge on Santa Cruz, capital of the Canary Islands. Known officially as Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife, it draws people from all over the world in preparation for the onset of Lent.
The Tenerife Carnival is one big party in which participants throw out their inhibitions and become what they aren't, using costumes, masks, erotic themes and cross-dressing to make Carnival such a spectacle.
Performers liven up the streets, music electrifies the air, glitzy costumes delight spectators, and competitions honor high fashion. Costumes and performance groups called murgas, rondallas, and comparsas ensure that each year is somehow even more spectacular than the one before. Locals spend weeks and months designing costumes and preparing acts. Carnival venues include the Plaza de Toros and the Plaza de España. Tickets for events sell out fast, often within an hour of going on sale, so try to purchase them at the same time you book a flight to Tenerife.
The Carnival took on themes beginning in 1987. The first, appropriately enough, was Rome, reflecting its Roman origins. Decorations became more elaborate moving from King Kong to Egyptian sphinxes, a Western movie set, a medieval castle, a Chinese temple, the Eiffel Tower, and even a spaceship.
During the weeks preceding the Wednesday election of the Carnival Queen, there are contests for adults and children comparsas or lyrical and musical groups, rondallas or string ensembles, the Queen of the Elderly, the Child Queen, Song of Laughter, and adult and children's murgas. There's even an official Carnival song. There's also a choreography contest and a contest rewarding the most original floats and decorated cars.
The festivities begin with the election of a Carnival Queen on the Wednesday before Carnival Weekend. A jury composed of members of the city council and celebrities chooses the queen. After choosing her attendants, the mayor of Santa Cruz hands the scepter to the winner. The costumes for the queen and her court are expensive, so multinational corporations sponsor each one. Made of feathers, plastic, metal, and paper, each costume can weigh over 200 pounds.
After the Gala of the Queen, featuring crowning of the Queen, held earlier on Friday evening, the Carnaval de Tenerife takes to the streets with the Cabalgata Anunciadora, the Announcement Parade, a massive, energetic parade featuring music groups, dance troupes, extravagant costumes and decorated floats. Participants have been wearing masks since 1783, but the practice of men dressing as women began even earlier in 1605. The parade begins at the Parque La Granja and ends at the Plaza de España, after snaking noisily through the streets for hours. The murgas and rondallas escort the queen and members of her court, each carried on their own float.
Dancing, two main venues, the Plaza de la Candelaria and the Plaza del Príncipe, dominates the Saturday of Carnival. Tents in the Plaza de la Iglesia de la Concepción and the Plaza de Europa feature Latin music. Bars and cars play their own music, adding to the cacophony.
Lunes de Carnaval or Carnival Monday is a day of feasting, with performances at the main venues, and DJs at the Plaza de la Candeleria.
On Carnival Tuesday, the Carnival hits its climax with a wild parade known as 'El Coso.' The city streets become a sea of color and writhing rhythms, as everyone shows off their best dance moves, costumes, music, and antique cars.
Most Lenten carnivals end at midnight on Tuesday, but not in Tenerife. In fact, the event on Ash Wednesday is the most bizarre of all as the people of Tenerife celebrate Entierro de la Sardina, 'the burial of the sardine.' They begin by draping the city streets in mourning. A giant sardine made of paper and cloth perches on a throne while being carried through the streets on a float in a funeral procession, followed by throngs of mourners, dressed as priests, bishops, popes, and nuns, who mock the Catholic Church while imitating blessings and other religious rites, often with sexual overtones. Everyone dresses in black. Loud weeping and wailing these members of the clergy signals the end of Carnival. Then they set the giant effigy of the sardine on fire, and bury it, marking the end of chaotic Carnival and the beginning of Lent. It's all hysterically funny, even if you don't understand any Spanish.
While the Entierro de la Sardina represents the end of Carnival, it's really just the beginning of the end, as there are still four days — yes, four more days — left to party. The end actually comes on the Sunday following Ash Wednesday, when Tenerife says 'adios' to the Carnival with the so-called Piñata Chica, a celebration featuring a parade of antique cars, shows, and still more parties. Following the final parade, the Tenerife Carnival goes out with a literal bang as fireworks light the night sky.
Carnival in Tenerife ranks right up there with the La Tomatina in Buñol and the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. Leave it to the Spanish to know the secret to having a good time.
Wednesday 3rd February 2016 to Sunday 14th February 2016